Riverkeeper: Town should pay to test water after huge sewage spill

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Staff report
THOMASVILLE ó Ronnie Lewis blames raw sewage coming from the city of Thomasville for making his 1-year-old granddaughter sick after she went swimming in the Abbott’s Creek arm of High Rock Lake.
Lewis, whose place is off Reynolds Circle in Davidson County, said Friday he is sure Thomasville has been allowing sewage spills into the waters of the lake for more than a year.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. called on the city of Thomasville Friday to pay for water quality testing to ensure the public it is safe to swim in High Rock Lake.
Lewis’ granddaughter visited his lake property about three weeks ago, went swimming with other family members and later had a serious case of diarrhea.
“We couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Lewis said.
But Lewis later heard reports that nearly 16 million gallons of raw sewage had spilled into North Hamby Creek ó something that only came to light Sept. 8.
North Hamby Creek feeds Abbott’s Creek, which flows into High Rock Lake.
Lewis, whose family has been in the plumbing business for several generations, said he knows the smell of and appearance of raw sewage in the water, and he has been seeing and smelling it near his dock for more than a year.
At first, he thought it might be overflow from a neighbor’s septic tank, Lewis said.
“I guarantee, it’s been going on for a long, long time,” he added.
Besides immediate water testing, Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks also has requested that Thomasville officials commit to spending $10 million to improve an aging sewage collection system.
Naujoks said reports earlier this week that Thomasville initially had failed to report a spill of more than 15 million gallons of raw sewage into North Hamby “have triggered overwhelming public alarm about the safety of the water in High Rock Lake.”
In a press release, Naujoks said the Coast Guard Auxiliary on High Rock Lake has received “an unprecedented amount of calls asking about public health and safety of the water on High Rock Lake.”
But the N.C. Division of Water Quality has no data available to ensure public health is protected, he added.
Naujoks said it is the city of Thomasville’s sewage, and Thomasville needs to provide immediate funding to pay for independent testing to determine whether there is a public health threat.
The city also needs to put forward a plan with committed funding to improve its aging sewage lines, he said.
Naujoks contacted Thomasville City Manager Kelly Craver and Mayor Joe G. Bennett Thursday urging city officials to conduct their own investigation “and demonstrate proactive leadership by committing to the testing and providing the funding to fix Thomasville’s failing sewage collection system.”
Naujoks claims Thomasville amended a sewage report Sept. 8 because of an Environmental Protection Agency criminal investigation, prompted by a report EPA received from Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc.
Naujoks received a tip from a Thomasville plant operator claiming city officials had intentionally underreported the spill totals on Aug. 4 to the media.
State law requires that sewage spills above 1,000 gallons be reported to the media to alert the public about potential health risks.
Naujoks said Thomasville Public Utilities Director Morgan Huffman initially reported a sewage spill of 385,000 gallons to N.C. Division of Water Quality Aug. 4 but amended the report Sept. 8, when the EPA Criminal Investigations Division made an unannounced visit to review plant data.
Naujoks said it is still not clear why the larger spill was not reported. The same plant data was used to determine 15.93 million gallons of raw sewage had poured into Hamby Creek weeks later when EPA visited the plant, he said.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. said plant operator logs from July 16 and July 25 “clearly indicate operators reported flow coming into the plant had dropped significantly from an average of 2 million gallons a day (MGD) down to 1.5 MGD at a time when flow to the plant should have significantly increased as a result of heavy rains inundating the sewer lines.”
The plant’s flow meters and SCADA also showed a significant drop in flow entering the plant which could only mean a rupture in the city’s aging sewage lines, Naujoks said.
Raw sewage began going into Hamby Creek July 13 but was not reported until Aug. 4, lasting more than 20 days, Naujoks said.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. said people swimming in High Rock Lake in July reported an odor of raw sewage,.
“Now property owners on High Rock Lake are contacting Yadkin Riverkeeper, saying sewage discharges to the lake have been going on for more than two years,” Naujoks said.
The organization says raw sewage poses a serious public health risk, containing disease pathogens, bacteria, viruses, toxins and antibiotics that can cause serious illness, leave skin lesions and open festering sores.
High Rock Lake is already listed as impaired for nutrients and sediment loading on the state’s 303d list for impaired waters.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. has called on the N.C. Division of Water Quality to issue the maximum penalty under the federal Clean Water Act for the spill. A fine of $32,500 per day would total $650,000 over the entire 20 days, Naujoks said.
“If the estimated amount is correct, this spill is one of the largest municipal sewage spills ever documented in North Carolina, much larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989,” Naujoks said.
“The public deserves a full explanation” from the Thomasville utility, Naujoks added.
The Division of Water Quality fined Thomasville $1,616 after the first report of a spill.
The city is working on an amended report, which could result in additional fines.